Why aren’t emails to an at-work lover copyrighted?

Academia is always great for showing those with inferior credentials (i.e., “inferiors”) how to think and behave appropriately. University of Michigan recently fired its president for having sex with someone else who works at the University of Michigan. The press release:

After an investigation, we learned that Dr. Schlissel, over a period of years, used his University email account to communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University. In the interest of full public disclosure, we have released dozens of Dr. Schlissel’s communications that illustrate this inappropriate conduct …

(He’s actually a real doctor, not merely someone lacking the creativity to quit grad school before getting a Ph.D.: “Mark Schlissel, MD, PhD”)

A 118-page PDF is available as a link. Note that the sex/knish partner is “Individual 1”, implying that this guy had a Cuomo-style stable of females, but no “Individual 2” appears.

Suppose that Mark Schlissel had identified as a member of the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community and used his official email account to make reservations at some of the places featured in “San Francisco tells gay bathhouses, ‘Welcome back!'” (Bay Area Reporter, January 25, 2021, just in time to catch a few more COVID-19 waves!):

The city’s public health department has rescinded the restrictions that have kept such businesses from operating in the city since the mid-1980s. A legacy from the height of the AIDS epidemic, bathhouses in San Francisco until now could not have private rooms with locked doors and were required to monitor the sex of their patrons.

Those regulations, when put into effect, resulted in a de facto ban on gay bathhouses in San Francisco, leaving residents to have to travel to such businesses in Berkeley and in San Jose. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lone gay bathhouse left in the Bay Area is Steamworks in the East Bay and it remains closed because of the health crisis.

While gay sex clubs without private, locked rooms continued to operate in the city, most eventually closed their doors. There is just one in operation today: Eros on upper Market Street in the city’s LGBTQ Castro district.

The venues must provide safe sex materials free of charge, such as lubricants and condoms. Those establishments with locked rooms must have such materials stocked in each room.

And all such businesses need to provide wash-up facilities for their patrons where they have access to hot and cold running water, liquid soap, hand sanitizer and paper towels.

Presumably the Board of Regents would have celebrated their president’s decision to live the university’s values. Instead of getting to know 50 new male friends at a bathhouse, however, the implication is that President Schlissel was having sex with 1 female friend from work and that they were organizing the sex around athletic events, Saudi filmmaker Safa Al Ahmad events, and articles from Harvard Business Review about how to breathe (a skill that folks who’ve paid $500,000+ in Ivy League tuition may not have mastered, apparently; one tip for easier breathing… move to Florida and then you don’t have to try to do it through a mask). Rather than enhancing campus Pride, as the bathhouse visits might have, the (cisgender?) heterosexual office romance was “inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University.” (But if the Board hadn’t fired Dr. Schlissel and released the emails, thus telling everyone about this exciting situation, how would the reputation of the university been affected?)

This post is not about whether the Board made the right decision, but how it is possible for them to publish 118 pages of the president’s emails from a copyright perspective. The university IT folks had the technical means to dig into the president’s account, of course, but can they publish these documents without permission? I guess they can because they did, but how?

Tougher question: What does Mark Schlissel, MD, PhD do now if he wants to continue working? Emigrate to China or France? No American university can hire him, right?

The Michigan commerce mural above is from the Guardian Building, in Detroit (Returning from EAA AirVenture (‘Oshkosh”), August 2021), and contains some job ideas if Dr. Schlissel wants to stay local.


  • “Why did University of Michigan fire Mark Schlissel? He broke a rule he introduced this summer” (MLive): At the July Board of Regents meeting, he announced an overhaul of sexual misconduct policy changes, particularly the prohibition of relationships between subordinates and supervisors. There would be zero tolerance for someone in a leadership position to “solicit a personal or romantic relationship with someone they have a supervisory authority or career influence over,” he said at the time.
  • The Wikipedia page for this guy mentions that he was criticized for not following the science in maxxing out the university’s level of coronapanic. In other words, a group of elite Americans rejected as unscientific the leadership of an MD, PhD (professor of microbiology and immunology as well as a professor of internal medicine). Paging Dr. Tegnell!
  • Real World Divorce chapter on Michigan (in case the doctor’s wife decides it is time to cash out)

17 thoughts on “Why aren’t emails to an at-work lover copyrighted?

  1. I think that some of his jobs are safe for now. From referenced wikipedia article: “He holds a professorship of microbiology and immunology and a professorship of internal medicine within the University of Michigan Health System as well as a professorship of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology in the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. ” Unless he will be fired as a professor for breaking his own rule, which I do not think is going to happen due they union and his tenure. I would guess he would have to start working as a practicing internist, if he will not be able to keep contributing to #science.

  2. Back when I was a drone, it was understood that corporate wage slaves don’t own their emails since the company owns the email system. See for instance:
    “Employers typically own the computer used to access the email, servers, and other data. Accordingly, emails sent and received on work email accounts are the property of the employer and can generally be monitored by the employer. Employees should not expect email messages to remain private.”

    Also, there is usually an employment agreement that says all employee IP is owned by the company which of course includes the emails no matter how sonnet-like.

  3. I’m not up to speed with recent discovery rules in university court cases involving email, but I believe @demetri is correct: your use of the system gives you no claim to copyright and the contents belong to the University. In fact, I’m not even clear on what happens if two people use private email services discussing university business that comes to court. That would be a very interesting thing to know.

    Part of this is because higher administrators often delegate the authority to read and respond to emails to subordinate workers, like secretaries. For example, when I was DeanSec at one time a galaxy far, far away, I had access to my boss’s email and I was expected to go through it and send her only the most important and critical information while she was on vacation in places like Israel during her conversion to Judaism. She could not connect to the University’s servers using her rudimentary laptop and dial-up connection, so I sent her the juicy bits via an alternate channel. However, if I had misused that information, I’m sure the University would have skinned me alive for tampering with their email system.

    I think Professor Schlissel should take it the Gay Way and stop dealing with women entirely. They’re too much trouble, particularly for male academics, all of whom walk around with multiple targets painted all over their bodies.

  4. Has anyone noticed that institutions are no longer attacked, but only individuals with comparatively little power?

    In the 60s/70s the left would attack global corporations, the Shah, leftover Nazi (real ones) politicians, the military. Now individuals are cast out randomly from tightly organized totalitarian bureaucracies if they don’t meet neo-victorian purity standards.

    Surveillance of individuals is permitted and welcome if it serves entrenching the power of globalists and their subordinate politicians.

    As we see, Email is particularly dangerous. I would no longer trust a third party provider. Who knows when Gmail will use the compromising material that they have accumulated on most Americans (I would not have said this in 2015, but now it is a real possibility).

    “Private” chat systems like Facebook/Slack etc. are also highly dangerous.

  5. Anonymous wrote:
    As we see, Email is particularly dangerous. I would no longer trust a third party provider. Who knows when Gmail will use the compromising material that they have accumulated on most Americans (I would not have said this in 2015, but now it is a real possibility).

    I don’t disagree, but what alternatives exist? Running your own email server does not help if everyone you communicate with uses GMail. Is there any way to send a normal person a message without trusting the employees of a technology company?

    • CL: His sex/knish partner didn’t rat him out, I don’t think, nor sue for being damaged as a result of engaging in heterosexual sex acts and/or knish-eating. So if they’d communicated via Signal I think Dr. Schlissel would still be El Presidente and local Covidcrat.

  6. I don’t why they fired him but I have no doubt it has nothing to do with his affair. I’m sure everyone knew and as pointed out everything you do on your employers computer is theirs. Being a doctor he probably said something not on the approved covid script.

    • I think the employer is supposed to have a legitimate business reason to look at the emails. But then publishing the emails seems like a whole separate issue. From https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/does-your-employer-own-intellectual-property-you-create :

      “Broadly speaking, if an employee creates new intellectual property as part of their job, the employer owns that intellectual property,” explains Martell. “For example, if you’re an engineer and you design a more efficient engineering process, creating that new intellectual property is part of the job you’ve been hired to do.”

      But if an employee creates intellectual property that’s unrelated to their job, the situation becomes murkier. “If an accountant for the company, rather than an engineer, came up with that same engineering advancement, for example, there would be an argument that the work isn’t within the scope of their employment,” Martell notes.


      According to the Board, banging Individual 1 wasn’t part of Dr. Schlissel’s job. Therefore, the intellectual property that he created by emailing her should still belong to him. The university didn’t ask him to write it.

      Individual 1’s email was also published without a license from the author. Same situation applies. Her employer didn’t ask her to write those emails. How does the employer now enjoy copyright ownership and/or an automatic license?

    • May have changed, 20 years ago, I was taught that the company owns everything on their equipment. I don’t think emails make the intellectual property threshold more like you make a paper airplane out of the printer stash and the company still owns it. If it was a university supplied computer the university has fair game to everything on it including his shopping lists.
      It is weird that they published his emails, seems petty and vindictive. Don’t know what he did but I am convinced he wasn’t fired for dating a coworker.

    • As others indicated, there’s no expectation of privacy when using employer provided accounts:

      A federal court in Massachusetts ruled that not only did employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy, their employer was legally obligated to search their email as part of an investigation of alleged sexual harassment (Garrity v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., No. 00-12143-RWZ (D. Mass., May 7, 2002)).


    • Ivan: I agree that the employer can poke around and look at emails if it has some business reason to do it. But the question is whether the employer can then publish the emails. Suppose that an accountant writes the Great American Novel on his/her/zir/their work PC, but after hours. He/she/ze/they emails it to his/her/zir/their Hotmail account as a means of backup. Does the employer have the right to publish this novel on its web site? Take the text of the novel and sell it to a publisher for print and Kindle publication?

    • Phil:
      “Does the employer have the right to publish this novel on its web site?”

      From the common sense point of view, no, the employer does not have the right to publish the novel. Neither should have the university published the private exchange despite its having the right to inspect the accounts.

      However, very often law application in practice is not logical although on average it may be. I can easily imagine that a court could stretch the mantra “no expectation of privacy” to override other rights in some cases and not in others. So, for any reasonable person, “no expectation of privacy” is a fair warning to avoid an arbitrary outcome when push comes to shove.

  7. Anyone stupid enough not to use a properly encrypted web e-mail client (i.e. ProtonMail) for personal communications from employer’s computers deserves what’s coming to him.

    As a matter of fact, a company stupid enough to use e-mail service which is known for routine perlustration of user’s e-mail messages (GMail, looking at you) deserves all its trade secrets being stolen by Chinese hackers and all its discussions about optimizing taxes being read by the IRS, FINCEN, SEC, and FBI – and every other govt agency out there. Because that’s what they do.

    • It seems overall safer to communicate regarding personal issues on your own smartphone. Excepting interest from various snooping government agencies, of course, but this seems rare for most of us. (I guess Wall Streeters are the major exception to that rule of thumb. Perhaps one should keep in mind how often one’s employer has its emails subpoenaed.)

  8. I cannot comment on the legality of publishing private mails in the USA. In Europe the university would be in major trouble for that. Perhaps Dr. Schlissel should attempt a lawsuit in the UK for international reputational damage.

    Publishing the mails is clearly retribution. We all know the phrases the woke use and how to read between the lines:

    “In the interest of full public disclosure, we have released dozens of Dr. Schlissel’s communications that illustrate this inappropriate conduct, as well as the letter that we sent to Dr. Schlissel explaining our decision.”

    This is standard language for a public struggle session.

    “Each one of us, as members of the Board of Regents, aspire to create an environment where everyone in our community is able to thrive and achieve their best work, and where all feel safe and respected.”

    This is the nuclear blow. The “meek” claim that they need protection and the imaginary obstacle to the utopia had to be removed (in a struggle session, everything is inevitable, like in a Greek tragedy).

    The University of Michigan has been in the headlines before:




    “Bright Sheng survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution but he might not survive a couple of whiny Michigan students being shown a film version of ‘Othello’.”

  9. ” In Europe the university would be in major trouble for that.”

    The Council of Europe member countries had had until 2017 legal arrangements similar to those in this country, i.e. practically unlimited access to employees’ email accounts. Only after 2017, employer rights to monitor employers’ email was somewhat limited to different degrees depending on a specific country.

    So, yes, in a CoE member country there’s a higher likelihood of a university publishing a private exchange being ‘actionable’.

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